Peruvian cuisine is one of the most fascinating food cultures in the world. It is unmatched in both its diversity and individuality – in my humble opinion, anyway. It is a fusion of many different cultures; it retains unique elements of each, yet is a distinct cuisine all its own. Its main influences are the indigenous Inca peoples; the Spanish conquistadors; African slaves brought by the Spanish; and large waves of immigrants who became integral components of the cultural and culinary framework.
The Inca Empire, at the time of the Spanish conquest, was a vast and complex civilization that – at its height – extended into modern-day Chile, Ecuador and Colombia. This region was called Tahuantinsuyo, or “land of four regions.” The Tahuantinsuyos (the word “Inca” actually referred to the nation’s nobility, though we’ll use it because it’s familiar) were already a mixture of cultures and languages themselves, united through the conquests of emperor Pachacutec and his sons. After Pachacutec’s death, both brothers vied for power; as a result, the nation was greatly compromised by war between the two brothers’ factions. It is at this time that the Spaniards arrived; the weakened state of leadership, government, and army greatly contributed to the Incas’ downfall at the hands of the Spanish.
The indigenous peoples had a rich array of native foods, recipes and techniques when the colonizing Spanish arrived. Peru is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, and a multitude of important native foods were consumed throughout the country: notably the variety of peppers, hot and sweet, which are an essential ingredient in many Peruvian recipes. Peanuts and many tomato and bean varietals were also cultivated and widely consumed.
In addition to these universal ingredients, local cuisines were – and still are – highly dependent upon the geographic area and climate of each region. While it is important to note that there is a considerable overlap of foods in each region, there are three main climatic (and culinary) regions:
The Andes Mountains and Highlands
The mountain regions had a highly developed system of farming, which included terrace farming and its complex irrigation systems. Many mountain crops grow only at specific altitudes; these ancient farmers knew which crops grew best at which altitude, and had elaborate planting and harvesting systems in place for each crop.
Corn was a highly-prized staple of Andean cuisine; there were a multitude of corn cakes and tamales, each serving a different meal or cultural purpose (i.e. some were for ritual celebrations, some for everyday meals, etc.). Chicha morada is a drink made from purple corn; and chicha de jora is a fermented corn beer which held great ceremonial importance in ancient Inca life.
They also cultivated hundreds of tuber varieties indigenous to the region, especially the incredible diversity of potatoes; but also sweet potatoes and unique tuber varieties such as the olluca. Quinoa, amaranth (kiwicha) and other ancient grains were important for nutrition and culinary variety. While the majority of the common folk ate little meat, the Incas did hunt fresh game such as venison (most often in the participation of ritual hunts). They also domesticated native animals, such as llama, alpaca, and cuy, or guinea pig, which they also sacrificed.
The Inca people developed advanced preparation and preservation methods such as freeze-drying; these enabled them to endure times of scarcity and difficult weather conditions. Chuños / papas secas (dried potatoes) are still a staple, and a main ingredient in the stew carapulcra. The Incas also dried meat and freshwater fish; in fact, charqui (jerky) is one of the few Andean foods and Quechua words that have been adopted worldwide. Pachamanca is a huge celebration meal that is cooked in an earthen pit with hot stones. Native plants such as huacatay, a native herb related to marigold, and hot peppers, seasoned and flavored their foods.
Tropical / Amazon Basin
This region grows vast quantity of tropical fruits, many of which are not often found outside of Peru; they include camu camu, lucuma, cherimoya, and guanabana. Also found are yucca, yam, guava, passion fruit, granadilla, and avocado. The Amazon River provides an abundance of fish and wildlife. Wild pig and other jungle animals are hunted.
Fish and seafood are obvious staples. Ceviche – raw fish or seafood marinated in lime juice – is a regional delicacy; each area has its own version. Waterfowl such as duck was also common.
There are two subdivisions of the coastal regions:
The Northern Coast is extremely hot, with a desert savanna climate. In addition to an abundance of fish and seafood, Chicha de jora (corn beer) is used in cooking more frequently here. Also, maize tamales are more common, whereas corn tamales are made in Lima and the southern portion of the country. Goat and lamb, particularly in stews (secos), are common entrées in this region.
Lima and the Central / Southern Coast has a subtropical / desert climate. Once home to the Viceroyalty, Lima is now considered the gastronomic center of Peru, if not all of South America. The sheer number and variety of Peruvian restaurants is extraordinary.
When Francisco Pizarro and the Spaniards arrived in Peru in 1532, they not only found a state weakened by civil war; but they also brought smallpox and other epidemics, which wiped out somewhere between 60% to over 90% of the Inca population by the end of the 16th century… leaving few people to fight or to be conquered. The Spanish used the remaining Inca as slaves – frequently working them to death – and suppressed their culture and traditions to the point that few Inca artifacts or history remain. They also brought their own blended culture’s cuisine, which consisted of European and Moorish recipes, ingredients, and methods.
Aside from pestilence and oppression, the Spanish brought European classical cuisine and ingredients including: onions and garlic; cumin, cilantro and parsley; and fruit trees (especially grape, olive, citrus, apple, peach, and pear). They also brought domesticated livestock, such as chicken, cows, rabbit, goats and sheep. The Spanish contributed significant agricultural staples such as rice and wheat. The Spaniards’ contribution of sugar cane transformed Peru into a sweet-loving culture in a very short period of time.
The Inca intermarried with the Spanish over many generations; and their descendants came to be called mestizo (mixed). This created a lower-middle class that took many generations to develop. This process began on the culinary level as well, as the two food cultures began to blend together along with the families. Over many generations, the two cuisines became intermingled, recipes marrying ingredients and techniques became commonplace; and the foundation of modern Peruvian cuisine was created. Criollo (Creole) literally means locally-born people of foreign descent; but the term came to describe Peruvian cuisine itself: the marriage of Spanish colonial cuisine with the foods and food culture of the indigenous Inca groups.
Peruvian cuisine was later influenced by large immigrant population waves. The Spaniards brought African slaves as obviously unwilling immigrants. They contributed many culinary techniques and ingredients, often borne out of necessity (i.e. being forced to use less appealing cuts of meat, leftovers, etc.). They contributed African methods, particularly frying foods in oil; and made a significant contribution to the cuisine. A few notable recipes include anticuchos and tacu tacu. Also, as servants in the Viceroyalty’s kitchens, they helped transform Peru into a sweet-loving culture: they imbued Spanish desserts with African undertones. Picarones and turrón de Doña Pepa are a few examples.
Peru formally declared its independence on July 28, 1821. In 1872, the Peruvian government created the Sociedad de Inmigración Europea (“European Immigration Society”); it offered financial support to Europeans looking to emigrate to Peru. Many immigrants – most notably Italians, Germans, and French – soon arrived. Classical French cuisine and Italian ingredients (especially pasta) were readily incorporated into the food culture. Many settled in isolated communities in mountain valleys and lowlands; Italian and German enclaves in the mountain valleys and Amazon basin still exist today, and strive to maintain their ethnic heritage.
Chinese immigrants arrived to build the railroads in the 1800s, and contributed tremendously to Peruvian food culture. Chifa – Chinese-Peruvian cuisine – blends traditional Chinese with native Peruvian ingredients. Peruvian cooks began to integrate Chinese ingredients into their meals; ginger, soy sauce, and scallions can be found in many Peruvian recipes. Chifa is quite different from Chinese-American cuisine – which has been altered to suit American tastes, and is not generally consumed by Chinese people (either in the U.S. or in China). It is a unique cuisine onto itself. Lima and the larger cities hold the greatest concentration of Chinese immigrants, and consequently the greatest number of chifa restaurants.